Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017) flits between fantasticality and raw reality so that it is never quite apparent what actually happens and what, instead, has just been a figment of the imagination.
The titular Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a college freshman in Oslo. Away from her helicopter parents for the first time, she befriends a classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), with whom she has her first taste of cigarettes, wine, curse words and forbidden love. When an onset of seizures forces doctors to run tests and dig into her family’s medical history, Thelma discovers that her parents—to whom she discloses every detail of her life, down to her class schedule, and what kind of soup she made for dinner—have not been as forthcoming with her. Like her grandmother, she is telekinetic and can force an entire person to disappear, and her parents’ desire to control this ability has been an ulterior motive behind the strict Christian values she was raised with.
In line with the supernatural suspicions that underlie her foray into undergraduate life and adulthood, there is a magical quality to the encounters between Thelma and Anja. These scenes gradually strip away all extraneous sound and image, leaving just the essence of the moment. At a house party, the lovers make out. The background chatter and music fades, so that we hear only their breath and lips moving over each other. The surrounding room melts away too: their friends disappear, and the walls blacken, until all that remains visible is two intertwined bodies on a couch. This near sensorial deprivation allows us to be hyper focused on the physicality of the women’s interaction. Then the film thrusts back into reality: an open-legged Thelma sits alone on the couch, while her friends look on. After so long without it, the return of contextual detail is jolting. Like awaking suddenly from a dream, we question how much was real, and what parts were just a figure of her imagination. In this regard, the film masterfully suspends disbelief, sustaining this sense of wonderment and uncertainty in the mind of the viewer.
Disappointingly, this uncertainty ultimately devolves into confusion. In a panic about her newfound abilities, Thelma returns home seeking help. There, her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) puts her on a regiment of prayers and powerful drugs. After a flashback from her childhood, with the mystery of her telekinesis explained, Thelma loses grasp of its central tension as well as its main character. As she overpowers her medication and returns to Oslo, the decisions she takes are uncharacteristic of Thelma as we have come to know her. Through another of her seizures, she forces her father out of his boat on the lake, and to his disappearance. Then, without a word, she heals her emotionally distant and distrustful mother, Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). The transition from the naïve girl who could hardly utter profanity like “Jesus Satan” above a whisper, to this stone-faced apparition is too instantaneous. What’s more, it is too disconcerting to be suddenly locked out of her motivations, when the bulk of the movie hung upon getting lost in her deepest fantasies and inner conflict: witnessing her vacillations between Christian innocence and youthful rebellion.
The film ends as Thelma and Anja walk off, across campus, together. The shot steadily widens: encompassing the campus quad and losing the couple in the mass of bodies that move through it. This parallels a scene from the beginning of the film, where the camera zooms in from an identically framed wide shot of the campus, to focus in on Thelma walking to class alone. Though the inversion of an earlier shot is a fine concluding gesture, the reappearance of Anja leaves so many questions that it feels like the film is rushing towards its ending, losing track of the careful unfolding from its beginning. When she discovers she has the power to bring people back, why does Thelma only do so for Anja? Why not the others? It is even more bizarre that—having been thrown into the depths of nowhere for several weeks—Anja merely reappears and plays girlfriend like everything is fine. Does she have any knowledge of what was done to her? Does she care? Does Thelma?
Thelma begins mesmerizingly: leaving just enough questions unanswered to provoke curiosity. However, by the end, the film loses this delicate balance: it fails to leave any hints at all, making it impossible for viewers to even grasp at the answers for themselves.